June 2011


Today Larval Subjects hit two million vistors. Not bad for a blog that was started one night on a whim!

Over at Fractured Politics Kris Coffield has posted an interview with me. Kris asked really challenging and fantastic questions and my responses to his questions are a bit denser than some of my other interviews. There’s a lot of politics here, as well as discussions of the difference between the critical and the speculative turn, how the speculative turn builds on the critical turn, and epistemology. I’m really thankful that Chris gave me the opportunity to respond.

A couple hours ago I got off the phone with Tim Morton after having a terrific discussion about the ethical implications of object-oriented ontology and ecology. Tim remarked that the more we learn about ecology, the more ecologically aware we become, the more we discover that we are all ethical hypocrites. Here I’m reminded of a passage from Adorno’s Problems of Moral Philosophy. There Adorno remarks that,

This conception of ethics contrives to undercut the question that should form the basis of every deeper reflection on moral or ethical questions, namely the question whether culture, and whatever culture has become, permits something like the good life, or whether it is a network of institutions that actually tends more and more to thwart the emergence of such righteous living. (14)

The “conception of ethics” Adorno is here referring to is something like existentialism (as he understands it), where being ethical simply consists in acting according to what one already is. By contrast, Adorno wishes to draw attention to the sort of moral conflict between the world in which we live and our possibility of living a “righteous life”. What are we to do when the world in which we live itself prevents something like a righteous life?

From a eudaimonistic or virtue-ethics perspective, this deadlock would arise in a variety of ways. From the standpoint of eudaimonism or human flourishing, this realization would arise when we recognize that our social circumstances and conditions are such that 1) we are constitutively unable to achieve something like flourishing or eudaimonia in this world, and 2) that because of how we develop in our social world, because of how we our social world is put together, we a) don’t even know what flourishing would be, and b) have an incredibly distorted picture of flourishing. Here we have the core thesis around which Marx’s entire analysis of capitalism revolves. Conditions of production under capitalism are such that flourishing is impossible by virtue of the manner in which we become mere gears in a value-producing machine that undermines our own autonomy, that deskills and numbs us, and that where the commodity gives us an incredibly distorted picture of what flourishing would be, endlessly suggesting that it is the acquisition of this or that commodity that would provide us with the flourishing or actualization that I seek. “If only I had the iPad2, if only I had this or that exotic food, if only I had a McMansion, etc., I would achieve eudaimonia.”

As Marx argues, because we work under conditions of forced necessity, and because we are alienated from the products of our labor– yes, yes, I know, Marx later abandons the alienation thesis, yet this is still a valuable point to emphasize in understanding the dynamics of capitalism and why we should care about them –work comes to be seen as something outside life, something other than life, rather than as one aspect of life that contributes to our flourishing or eudaimonia. By contrast, life is now seen to unfold in the domain of whatever is not work, in whatever is outside work. The richness of life is thereby significantly devalued. Life now comes to consist in sleeping, eating, drinking, watching American Idol, etc. It becomes all those little snippets of enjoyment we can attain outside of work. As a consequence, “eudaimonia” becomes the acquisition of commodities and leisure rather than the actualization and cultivation of persons. In other words, within this social system we no longer even have a picture of what a virtuous or eudaimonistic life might be and everywhere we seem to feel as if there is something profoundly dissatisfying about this life without being able to determine what this source of dissatisfaction might be.

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Over at Dailykos, Chrislove has a hilarious diary on Bill Donohue’s meltdown over the NY gay marriage victory. This is, of course, the Bill Donohue of Catholic League fame who’s constantly bloviating on television about how Christians are oppressed because, well, they have to be tolerant of others in public or something. Donohue’s brilliant argument is that “the plug has to go in the socket! Apparently he’s missed the fact that there are a variety of different “sockets” and hands and feet to boot!

But my favorite part is when he worries that the human species will become extinct as a result of oh so hot gay sex. My friend Tim Richardson always likes to remind me of Lacan’s claim that the superego commands us to “Enjoy!” As Tim reads it, this entails that the Law doesn’t simply command obedience, but jouissance. In conservative types, this means that when there’s a law permitting something you actually HAVE to do that thing permitted. If it’s legal to own guns that means I’m commanded to buy as many guns as possible. If it’s legal to smoke I MUST smoke. And likewise, for Bill Donohue, if gay marriage is legal it must mean that all people have to get gay married.

My post on depression got me thinking once again about the difference between the psychoanalytic conception of the symptom and what might be called the psychotherapeutic conception of the symptom. In what I am here calling psychotherapeutic orientations the symptom is an impediment to enjoyment to be eradicated. Here my symptom is something from which I suffer, something alien that plagues me, something that prevents me from attaining satisfaction or that stands in the way of my satisfaction. While it is indeed true that we suffer from our symptoms, within a psychoanalytic framework my symptom is the source of my jouissance or enjoyment, and is constitutive of my being (in the case of neurosis and perversion; remember there is no “normal” for psychoanalysis) as a subject. In this regard, the eradication of my symptom would amount to my destruction, my disappearance, as a subject.

Here it’s necessary to qualify the term “jouissance“. The term “jouissance or enjoyment, in English, has connotations of pleasure. Yet within a psychoanalytic framework, jouissance is radically different than pleasure. Pleasure refers to a release of tension that occurs through some sort of act such as eating. With the attainment of pleasure I no longer repeat. After I have eaten my fill, I no longer wish to eat anymore. By contrast, we know we’re in the presence of jouissance when we encounter endless repetition. We know that eating has become a matter of jouissance not pleasure when we continue to compulsively eat even though we are no longer hungry. We know that sex has departed from the domain of pleasure and entered the domain of jouissance when we compulsively masturbate throughout the day, rather than getting it over in the morning and being done with it. Jouissance is the domain of repetition where we seem to encounter a rise and maintenance of a particular activity rather than its cessation.

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The other day Jeremy Trombley recommended Ronald Sandler’s Character and Environment in response to one of my posts on ethics. I am only about halfway through the book right now, but so far it is among the most thought provoking books I’ve read in quite a while. Not only does Sandler present a nice overview of virtue ethics or eudaimonistic ethical orientations, but it explores a number of issues central to object-oriented ethics (OOE) with respect to the ethical status of nonhuman entities.

My thoughts are still scattered at the moment– and my brain is scrambled from writing quite a bit today –but I was particularly surprised to discover Sandler exploring ethical issues arising as a result of mereology (though he doesn’t use the term) in chapter three of his book. Recall that within the framework of object-oriented ontology objects do not need to be simple in order to be objects. A simple entity would be an entity that can be decomposed no further. For OOO, by contrast, all objects are aggregates; which is to say that they are objects composed of other objects. As Harman puts it in Guerrilla Metaphysics, objects can equally be thought as both networks of relations and as wholes or entities in their own right. As networks of relations, objects are composed of relations among other objects. As wholes they are unities in their own right. Within the framework of OOO this gives rise to curious paradoxes pertaining to mereology. Mereology studies the relationships between wholes and parts. Insofar as objects 1) are both aggregates of other objects, and 2) are objects in their own right, and insofar as 3) objects are withdrawn from one another and independent of one another, we get a curious situation in which objects are both independent of the larger scale objects of which they are parts and in which they are independent of the smaller scale objects that compose them. In other words, the parts of another object are never exhausted by being parts of that other object. They are objects in their own right.

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Morton, Mark K-Punk and I have been having an interesting discussion on twitter regarding the treatment of mental disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders, ADHD and others through the use of psychotropic drugs. K-Punk contends that psychotropics are over prescribed, that they fail to get at the real cause of these maladies, and points to things like the surprising effectiveness of placebos when treating maladies like depression. Morton contends that these maladies are real material entities, real chemical imbalances, points to the effectiveness of these drugs, and argues that claims that mental illness is “discursively constructed” have been used as apologies for closing down mental clinics. (A post on depressive and anxiety disorders, of course, requires The Scream. Incidentally, my four year old daughter, when recently encountering this painting, asked “what did he do after he screamed?” That’s one smart mini-cat!)

I think they’re both right and they’re both wrong. It seems to me that debates like this are governed by two binaries that both object-oriented ontology and developmental systems theory are designed to complicate, nuance, and displace. Between Tim and Mark we have, on the one hand, an opposition between naive realism (sorry Tim) and discursive constructivism (Mark). Here “maladies of the soul” are either materially real such that they are chemical imbalances in the brain or they are discursively and socially constructed such that they are not real. On the other hand, these maladies of the soul are either inborn and innate (Tim) or they are acquired and constructed (Mark). I am not doing full justice to either Tim or Mark’s position here and I’m certain they are more nuanced than this, but this oppositional grid at least has the virtue of bringing the contours of the public debate to the fore.

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Read it here!

As Mel and I explore the space of eudaimonistic ethical models, one of the issues she keeps bringing up is that they risk bringing about a bad sort of relativism. This worry seems to arise from loose talk about flourishing or connotations that might accompany the term “flourishing”. Along these lines, Mel has brought up three examples of bad “flourishing” to underline these worries: The pedophile, the methamphetamine user, and the petite bourgeois. In each case, the question is something like “what if one’s ‘flourishing’ requires x (the molestation of children, the use of methamphetamines, or the exploitation of workers so as to produce cheap goods) so as to ‘flourish’.” In other words, under this model, flourishing is equated with whatever we happen to like, such that the good is treated as equivalent to what we like.

In my view, the fact that one is immediately led to these sorts of thoughts whenever encountering eudaimonistic models of ethics is a testament to just how impoverished our thought on virtue or the good life has become. Yet virtues and “what we like” are not necessarily identical to one another. As Ronald Sandler puts it in his excellent Character and Environment: A Virtue-Oriented Approach to Environmental Ethics (thank you, Jeremy!),

A character trait is a virtue to the extent that it is conducive to promoting eudaimonistic and noneudaimonistic ends grounded in agent-relative and agent-independent goods and values.

Eudaimonistic ends are agent-relative goods and values that promote the goods and values (flourishing) of the agent in question. Ample sunshine and water is an example of eudaimonistic end for many plants in that such water and sunlight promote the flourishing growth and health of the plant. Non-eudaimonistic ends would be goods and values that are virtues but which don’t necessarily contribute to the flourishing of the being that values them. For example, a person might value the continued woodland existing of spotted owls, even though spotted owls don’t necessarily promote their flourishing in any particular way and despite the fact that promoting that existence even limits their ability to log a particular forest where these owls live. In other words, we can value things that don’t contribute to our own flourishing.

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My thoughts are still under development here so hopefully readers will be kind, but for some time now I’ve found myself deeply attracted to eudaimonistic models of ethical thought. Eudaimonistic ethical thought asks the question “what is the good life?” It is focused on questions of what a life characterized by flourishing would be. Thus, where nomological/juridical models of normativity are primarily concerned with determining whether actions are right or wrong, eudaimonistic normative models are interested in questions of ultimate values and how those values might be actualized or produced. I’ll have more to say about this in a moment, but it’s important to note that for eudaimonistic models of normativity, the question is not one of rejecting rules governing or regulating action, but rather a question of priorities. Where nomological/juridical models of normativity treat questions of normativity as exclusively exhausted by an examination of rules governing right and wrong action– leaving aside the question of whether or not these rules promote and further flourishing –for eudaimonistic models rules 1) are subordinate to fundamental values pertaining to flourishing, 2) therefore follow from these fundamental values, and 3) are therefore rules of thumb rather than absolutes.

It is likely that the seeds of nomological/juridical models of normativity began with the rise of Christianity during the middle ages. Where the ethical question of Greco-Roman antiquity had been “what is the good life?”, this question was largely foreclosed within the framework of Christianity insofar as 1) this world came to be seen as fallen, sinful, and futile, and 2) the overarching aim became one of salvation in the next life. Within this framework, situating ethical questions within the framework of questions of the good life amounted to a rejection of Christian doctrine and metaphysics. To raise such questions would amount to rejecting the thesis that the world is fallen and that salvation is to be sought not in this life but the next. Accordingly questions of ethics shifted from questions of the good life to questions of how to evaluate right and wrong action according to divine Law. What mattered was whether or not action accorded with this law, whatever it might be, and not whether or not action in according with that law produced or was conducive to the good life. We see vestiges of this today in Christian variants of homosexual reparative therapy. Even if the therapy tends to generate severe psychological maladies in the form of massive depression and and suicidal thoughts, it will be seen as a success if it shifts the person from homosexual behavior to heterosexual behavior. The quality of life is secondary to obedience to the law. The function of the law is not to promote flourishing, but rather is absolute and commanded by God.

With this shift we also get a shift to a new conception of both autonomy and the body. Setting aside the strange case of Plato, in antiquity the issue was not so much one of eradicating the body, of denigrating the body, as one of how to best live and satisfy one’s passions. Our passions, when left unformed or uncultivated, can generate massive suffering as in the case of the junkie that is a slave of his passions. Yet a life without the passions would be empty and would generate great suffering as well. The question is thus one of how to rationally satisfy our passions and drives without becoming slaves. In this regard, the body is a central theme of eudaimonistic ethical systems. We need to know something of the body, of its affects, of how it functions to answer questions about flourishing. Accordingly, we get a much broader conception of autonomy or freedom. Autonomy will not simply consist of being self-directing beings independent of all circumstance, but will involve questions of our relationship to our body, the social world in which we exist, our relation to our environment, etc. Epicurus’s Garden, for example, is not merely a historical curiosity with respect to his personal biography, secondary to the proper content of his ethical doctrine. Rather, the Garden, a place where like-minded individuals devoted to the Epicurean way of life live together, was a vital component of their autonomy insofar as control over their social life and environment was necessary to achieving the form of flourishing they sought. The Garden was a part of their autonomy.

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